Joseph Merkel’s Pioneering Motorcycles

January 1 2009
Vintage Flying Merkel Racer

It’s been estimated that as many as 300 American companies built motorcycles in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of these disappeared into oblivion without a trace, but some, really left their mark. The Merkel Motorcycle Company was one such firm.

Launched by 29-year-old Joseph Merkel in 1901, the company started out building bicycles at its Milwaukee shop, but soon began attaching small gasoline powered engines to bicycle frames. In 1902, Merkel introduced his first motorcycle, a small displacement straight-drive single of his own design.

Merkel had learned machining skills and a knowledge of lightweight parts manufacture while working in a machine shop in his youth. That experience and his insatiable curiosity about mechanical workings, led him to enroll as a mechanical engineering student at the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). Upon graduation in 1897, he joined the E.P. Allis Co. (a forerunner of Allis-Chalmers) where he worked as a draftsman for four years before going out on his own.

Merkel was a very inventive thinker and over the next twenty years did pioneering work in the evolution of motorcycle design. The Merkel motorcycles, all singles initially, soon became known for both advanced design and high build quality.

In 1905, Merkel began entering motorcycle competitions, including dirt track, board track and endurance events. Even a hundred years ago manufacturers recognized the connection between competition success and success in the marketplace. Eventually three competition models were developed and campaigned.

In 1909, Merkel was purchased by the Light Manufacturing Company and re-named the Merkel-Light Motorcycle Company. Production was relocated to Pottstown, Pennsylvania and Joseph Merkel moved with the company, still being a part owner.

At Pottstown, Merkel continued to develop the firm’s vehicles, introducing a 45-degree V-Twin the following year. This bike was essentially a mating of two of the firm’s 500 cc singles that shared a common crank and bottom end. These engines employed an atmospheric intake system and a mechanical exhaust valve.

Merkel also invented and patented new front and rear suspension systems that put them ahead of the competition. The front suspension was a fore-runner of the telescopic fork, while the rear suspension employed a sprung swing arm system similar to that later employed on road-going Vincents, and even Yamaha road racers and street bikes in the 1970s.

The Merkel suspended frame not only offered a much improved ride compared to other makes of machine at that time, but also constant drive belt or chain tension thanks to the cantilever-type rear-end design.

The new company’s motorcycles were now being marketed under the ‘Merkel-Light’ and ‘Flying Merkel’ brand names.

Vintage Merkel Motorcycle It was around this time that a young racer by the name of Maldwyn Jones came into the picture. Jones had originally been hired by the company to work on engines in the repair department and to serve as a test rider. Jones began working on, and racing, one of the firm’s older 500 singles and soon began to build a reputation for himself and for Merkel motorcycles.

In 1910, Jones entered a 4th of July racing event held in Hamilton, Ohio where he won a 10-mile (16 km) race, and made it to the event final. In the final he was running neck and neck with legendary Indian racer ‘Cannonball’ Baker when his bike ran out of gas giving Baker the win. This was just an indication of things to come from Jones and Merkel.

In 1911, the Merkel company was sold yet again, this time to the Miami Cycle Manufacturing Company, a firm that already built smaller displacement machines and was looking to add larger displacement models to its line. The new firm moved Merkel bike production to its Middletown, Ohio plant. Joseph Merkel once again moved with the company.

At Middletown, further improvements were made to the Merkel engines including the introduction of push-rod operated mechanical intake and exhaust valves. The cylinder heads and barrels were one-piece castings, and the fuel feed was via a central intake manifold fitted with a special Merkel-Schebler carb designed for both around town and high-speed open road running.

High strength, premium-grade Hess-Bright ball bearings made in Germany were employed throughout the engines, as opposed to the bronze bushings employed by other bike builders. Machining tolerances to 1/10,000ths of an inch were now employed for all engine parts.

Other special features of the Merkel engines included the use of non-breakable, hourglass shaped pistons, an armoured and waterproof gear-driven magneto ignition (an industry first), an external oil gauge viewable by the rider, plus a throttle controlled engine oiler and a supplemental hand-operated oil pump mounted on the frame.

The company also introduced a two-speed gearbox, a frame with integrated seat post and oil tank, a dual-system rear hub brake and a foot operated exhaust cut-out. Both single and twin cylinder models were offered, including belt and chain final drive versions.

By now, 1913, the Miami-Merkel concern had established a great reputation for itself as a builder of quality and potent motorcycles. The Merkel motorcycles were known as offering a comfortable ride with good performance. Sports versions of the twins developed 9 bhp and were capable of 60 mph (96 kph) top speeds.

Side image of the vintage 1916 Flying Merkel Maldwyn Jones was by now a championship competitor. Over the next three years he would rack up an incredible 22 wins, 10 second places and three third place finishes in 42 races, finishing outside of the top three only seven times, an extraordinarily successful record.

That year, 1913, Joseph Merkel sold his interests in the Miami company and went on to do advanced design work for other companies.

In 1914, the Miami-Merkel firm introduced a spring-powered self starter on their engines that was technically flawed and prone to failure. As a result the company was burdened with service and repair costs as well as costly lawsuits. The times were beginning to turn against the Merkel motorcycle.

In 1915, a new kick-starter system was introduced, but by then the Miami-Merkel concern was experiencing considerable duress. Increased competition from mass produced and ever more affordable cars, plus growing competition from other motorcycle producers only worked to compound the problems associated with a faltering US bike market.

The outbreak of the First World War and the loss of access to their German-made engine bearings created further problems for Miami-Merkel. The firm cut back its twin-cylinder production volume as their sales faltered, but even the lower cost singles were in trouble. The writing was on the wall.

The Miami Cycle Manufacturing Company discontinued motorcycle production in 1916, with the last machines being sold off the following year.

In the space of fifteen short years, the Merkel firms had introduced dozens of technical innovations to motorcycle design, established a reputation as a builder of upscale quality motorcycles, and proven themselves capable of competing on race circuits with the likes of Indian, Harley-Davidson and other top firms. Despite all of this and in the relative blink of an eye it was all over. Flying Merkel was dispatched to the pages of motorcycle history. MMM

Adam Bari’s Merkel Board Racer

About forty years ago, Louis Bari learned that a fellow who lived fairly close to his Tillsonburg, Ontario home had a 1,000 cc Flying Merkel V-Twin engine. Being a real vintage bike enthusiast, especially of American-made motorcycles, Bari approached the owner to see if he was interested in selling it. The answer was a definite no as the owner was then hoping to build up a bike to take the engine.

Some 35 years later, Bari was still a vintage bike buff, only now he was joined in this interest by his two grown sons. He mentioned the past existence of the Merkel engine to them and the possibility that it might still be around, and their interest was immediately piqued.

When the two younger Bari’s visited the engine owner a little while later they discovered that he was still in possession of the 45-degree V-Twin. The question was would he sell it? To their surprise he gave them the engine on the understanding that they would put together a complete Flying Merkel machine in which to house it. So began a vintage bike project that would take Adam Bari four years to complete.

Original parts for Flying Merkels are not particularly common-place. Bari had an engine, but nothing else. Fortunately, there are a small number of companies in the US that make chassis, body and engine parts for various early 20th century American motorcycles. One of these is the Competition Distributing Co. then located in Texas, but now relocated to Sturgis, South Dakota.

Competition Distributing builds new replica Flying Merkel board racer frames to accept the early Pottstown-version V-Twin engines. These had an atmospheric intake system. Bari’s Merkel was a later intake-over-exhaust (i-o-e) engine with rocker arms and mechanical intake. The improved intake system boosted performance, but also added about two inches to the height of the engine.

Not wanting to do anything to alter the famous looks of the Flying Merkel racing tank, such as using a shallower tank or cut-outs to give engine clearance, Bari asked Competition to build him a custom frame with a lowered bottom frame section to enable the engine to be mounted a couple of inches lower in the frame. This they did.

An examination of the engine had revealed considerable interior rust. Various parts would have to be replaced. Since Competition needed the engine to be sent to Texas anyway so that they could build the custom frame to fit it, it was decided to commission them to do an engine clean-up and rebuild at the same time.

The engine was bored out during the rebuild and now displaces something in the neighbourhood of 1,100 cc’s. All new bearings were fitted to the engine along with a new pair of pistons. Zekes Nomad Engineering in Colorado Springs provided a slip clutch, as well as new rocker arms.

When Adam acquired the Merkel it was missing both the carburetor and the middle part of the intake. A complete original intake and Merkel-Schebler carburetor were found on E-Bay and purchased. Then a second carb was found at a swap meet. This in turn lead to the location and acquisition of a third Schebler carb. Parts were then taken from the latter two carburetors to build up one good carb that was installed on the rebuilt engine.

The Merkel is a straight drive engine with the chain final drive as used by most of the factory racers. The original twin-cylinder engines developed between seven and nine bhp running on the gasoline available in the early 1900s. Bari figures that his bike puts out at least comparable power.

A third vintage bike specialist that supplied parts for the Merkel project was Antique Motorcycle Works of Oregon City, Oregon. Antique provided a newly fabricated front fork assembly manufactured to original specs. The forks appear to be girder units, but are actually a very early telescopic type of design. These forks incorporate an internal spring inside the upper slider tube providing compression and spring rebound. Short black rubber gators cover the upper sliders to prevent possible penetration and damage to the tubes by dirt or grit.

Antique Motorcycle Works also supplied a split or twin-compartment racing tank to fit the board racer frame. The trick tank carries gasoline in the front section, and engine oil in the rear. Thanks to the lowered frame tube modification, the fuel tank fits cleanly in the frame as originally laid out, with ample clearance for the taller engine.

The Merkel runs on premium fuel treated with a lead additive. The oil system employed is a total-loss drip system, supplemented by a hand pump that can be used by the rider to boost oil flow. Merkels were originally delivered with paperwork proclaiming that all of the engine ball bearings had been tested to 5,900 rpm, and that even after 12,000-13,000 miles of road use, test engines had shown little in the way of bearing wear.

The bike’s wheels utilize 28″ x 2″ automotive-inspired, clinch-type steel rims, laced with 36 heavy-duty steel spokes. These are fitted with white competition-style 28″ x 2.5″ tires front and back.

Being that it is a board-track racer, Bari’s Merkel has no brakes. The minimalist exhaust system employed consists of two very short open exhaust headers that are downward pointing at the engine. While the bike is fitted with a peddle-type starting system, the starting mechanism typically employed requires either a push or tow assist.

Bari now displays his Flying Merkel at vintage events and fires it up for people to listen to. This he does with the aid of a set of rollers turned by the drive wheels of a van or truck, racetrack style. Needless to say the exhaust noise given off by the unrestricted engine is considerable, but hey, that’s the way that they ran them ninety or so years ago.

Like the original Flying Merkels, Bari’s bike is finished in the eye-catching bright orange colour scheme that the company was known for, complete with the Flying Merkel name painted in large black capital letters down the length of the fuel tank. Weighing in at a scant 250 pounds, the long and lean racer looks well capable of the 100 mph top speed that these bikes regularly achieved competing on American board tracks.

Louis Bari estimates that there may be as few as 50 of the famous Flying Merkels left in existence. Given this, it’s worth noting that visitors to the 2009 North American International Motorcycle SUPERSHOW running from January 2-4 in Toronto will get a chance to see the Bari racer up close and personal as the Flying Merkel will be sharing the ‘Century of Motorcycles’ hall with 50 other vintage bikes.


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